A Modern Take on an Ancient Battle

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Classics Could the Greeks have run a mile in full battle gear?

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By Bill Giduz

Just in time for the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, a new book by Peter Krentz is sure to enliven the conflict that modern historians continue to wage about it.

In 490 BCE, the Athenians defeated the first Persian attempt to conquer Greece. Historians have long seen the battle as a pivotal moment in east-west relations, but are largely dissatisfied with the earliest and most detailed account, written by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus more than 40 years later. Herodotus leaves the reader with more questions than answers. For instance, he writes that the Athenians charged into the fight at a run for nearly a mile. Almost no one has believed that to be physically possible, or necessary.

But in his new Yale University Press book, The Battle of Marathon, Krentz offers a version of events that amplifies rather than rejects Herodotus’s account of the battle. He twice visited the Plain of Marathon, studying the topography in and around the five-mile-wide plain. He reread accounts of 19th-century British travelers, who saw the plain before vacation homes and a rowing center built for the 2004 Olympics altered its appearance.

Krentz, who is the W.R. Grey Professor of Classics and Professor of History at Davidson, believes the book’s major contribution is research on the Greeks’ one-mile charge to attack the Persians. He discredits common estimates that Greek battle gear weighed about 70 pounds. Based on finds of ancient armor and reconstructions, Krentz argues that the equipment weighed only 30 to 50 pounds.

He also got help from about 50 Davidson ROTC alumni who responded to his query about their experiences in running with weight, persuading him that Greek soldiers could indeed have jogged a mile with their gear.

Krentz is accustomed to controversies that arise from trying to get a clear vision of events hidden behind the fog of centuries passed. “Ancient history is fun,” he said, “because you have to squeeze limited evidence hard to develop an idea about what actually happened.”

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